A Philosopher's Blog

America, Iran & the Authoritarian Mind

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2009

Reading Maziar Bahari’s article about his ordeal in Iran reminded me very much of the novel 1984 and all the other descriptions of “interrogations” I have read. Thinking about this, I began to suspect that there is a core authoritarian mindset that remains the same across a wide variety of ideologies. In the case of Maziar Bahari’s horrible ordeal in Iran, he faced this mind in the form of Mr. Rosewater-his primary tormentor. While Mr. Rosewater is an individual, he is token of a type-that of the authoritarian mind.

The first, and most obvious, quality of this mind is that it is obedient to authority. While Milgram‘s famous experiment showed that most people seem to be naturally obedient, the authoritarian mind takes this obedience to a greater extreme. While the obedience does come in degrees, the truly authoritarian mind reaches a state of almost unquestioning obedience. This sort of obedience is, of course, critical to rulers everywhere-without such “dogs” (as per Animal Farm) they would lack an essential tool of their power. These “dogs” are the people who tortured Bahari, the people who ran the Nazi camps, and those folks who tortured in the name of defending freedom and democracy.

The second quality of this mind is a self-fulfilling paranoia. This sort of person sees any disagreement as the mark of an enemy, thus often forcing such people to become enemies in fact. Hobbes, of course, took this sort of view in the Leviathan when he noted that people see a failure to agree as the mark of disagreement and that people react with hostility to such things. Of course, the authoritarian mind takes this to a greater extreme than normal and tends to be willing to take violent action against those who disagree.

The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression. As such, these people tend to regard intellectuals and journalists as natural enemies. After all, people who think tend not to obey unquestionably and they often raise difficult moral concerns by failing to see the world as those in power wish it to be seen. Journalists, at least those not owned by the state, have a tendency to report unpleasant truths rather than the official “truths” of those in power.

Interestingly enough, both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media. In both countries, these folks blame the media for creating dissent, undermining the state, and encouraging immorality. The intellectuals and elites are also criticized and regarded as enemies. After all, these people are out of touch with “the people” and are not part of the true America/Iran.  Needless to say, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Rosewater’s view of the media is the same as that of Sarah Palin.

Of course, the dislike of the authoritarians for folks who think and talk is ancient. The sort of people who killed Socrates are the same sort of people who tortured Bahari.

The fourth quality is a flexible moral absolutism. In general, authoritarian folks believe that their cause or side is absolutely right. They also tend to hold to an absolute moral view of pure good and evil: the enemy is pure evil while they are pure good. This is often associate with a religion (for example, Islam in Iran and Christianity in the US).

What makes their absolutism flexible is that although they see the world in absolutes, they accept that they can do terrible things in service to their cause. For example, Mr. Rosewater worked very hard trying to paint Bahari as a morally evil man. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosewater was beating Bahari, subjecting him to mental torment and keeping him locked away for no legitimate reason. That is, Mr. Rosewater was evil and doing evil things. Likewise, in the United States people advocated using torture and imprisonment without trial and justified this by claiming that America is good and hence must be protected.

But, perhaps the authoritarians are not really flexible absolutists. Perhaps they just have two absolute principles: “my cause is right, so anything done its defense is also right” and “my enemies are wrong, so anything they do is wrong.” These two principles do seem to nicely capture the authoritarian mind.

A fifth quality of the authoritarian mind is a lack of concern about truth. In the case of Mr. Rosewater, his goal was not to find out the truth about reality (that Bahari was just a journalist and not a spy or agent). Rather, his goal was to impose a “truth” upon reality. For the authoritarian mind, “truth” is not something that one finds by objective investigation. The “truth” is provided by those above and it is “confirmed” by the use of force and torture. For example, if the authorities say that Bahari is a spy, then Mr. Rosewater would torture him to get him to say that he is a spy, thus “confirming” the “truth.” In contrast, real journalists and “intellectuals” investigate reality to see what the truth is-yet another reason why authoritarians hate intellectuals and journalists they do not control.

Authoritarians might also think that other people do what they do in this regard and this might also help explain this hostility. After all, if they think that the intellectuals and media people are trying to impose “truth” on the world, they would see these people as competitors to their “truth” and hence enemies. Perhaps the idea of objective truth is foreign to the authoritarian mind (as nicely illustrated in 1984).

Not surprisingly, authoritarians are terribly dangerous and help make small and great evils possible. Unfortunately, criticism of them generally tends to reinforce their paranoia as they see any criticism as an attack (especially if it is true). For example, criticism of Iran tends to simply make the hardliners take an ever harder line as they see more and more “evidence” that their paranoia is correct.

They also tend to be immune to reason and moral appeals-they are, after all, confident in their own moral goodness and regard reason as an attempt to create dissent.

So, then, how do we deal with such people? In some cases, they can be reached-after all, they are still human. For example, Bahari’s article reveals a great deal about Mr. Rosewater, such as the fact that he seems to truly love his wife. In some cases, these people cannot be reached and then it comes down to what they understand quite well-force.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this people is by increasing the numbers of people who are not them. While authoritarians are very dangerous because of their willingness to obey and do terrible things, they are obviously not superhuman. As such, their power can be countered by numbers of people who are willing to resist them and the evils that they defend.

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19 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2009 at 8:52 am

    “The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression.”

    I frankly find this particular quality more on display on the left side of the political spectrum.


    1) Speech codes at universities
    2) Wanting to bring back the “fairness doctrine” to destroy right wing talk radio
    3) Attempting to delegitimize Fox News
    4) Selling out the 1st amendment at the UN
    5) Violently disrupting campus speakers with the “wrong” point of view
    6) The use of the term “climate change denier” which equates those skeptical of climate change science to holocaust deniers

    • PhilK said, on November 30, 2009 at 9:27 am

      1-6 all quite mild when set alongside the various “actions” of Mr. Rosewater and his ikky ilk, wouldn’t you say?

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 30, 2009 at 9:53 am

        Agreed. I was mainly responding to Mike’s gratuitous swipe at Sarah Palin.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm

      The left does this as well. As my old poli sci professor used to say, the left and right eventually meet.

  2. PhilK said, on November 30, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Palin pretty much invites whatever criticism she gets.Don’t you think we had enough of the kind of person you would like to have a beer/kill a moose with with Bush. It’s almost embarrassing to be a Republcan. On the other hand it’s brainless to attempt to delegitimize Fox News. It does a bangup job of delegitimizing itself.

  3. Rob F said, on December 1, 2009 at 1:23 am

    Have you seen the book <a href="http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/"The Authoritarians. It all about this sort of thing.

    And I suppose I see some agreement between me and TJB; the same way there is always someone more politically correct than you, there is always someone more fundamentalist than you.

    • Rob F said, on December 1, 2009 at 1:24 am

      Link fix

    • kernunos said, on December 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm

      Political correctness and fundamentalism are not really on par but I get your point. I will say that political correctness is much exponentially more widespread than fundamentalism. I meet people everyday that are politically correct. Some because they fear to say the wrong thing and not actually believe it. I have never met a fundamentalist in real life though. Not once.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm

        You need to get around more-there are plenty in the US and even more in the rest of the world. Interestingly, the extreme PC and the extreme fundamentalists share the same core principle: everyone must do as we wish. While the PC folks generally avoid physical violence, they are no strangers to coercion and destruction.

      • kernunos said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:58 pm

        Extreme PC? It is already extreme in its pervasiveness. How can it be more extreme than having to watch the same PC videos every year no matter where you work?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2009 at 5:49 pm

          I don’t have to watch PC videos. The only thing I have to do is go to a discrimination workshop every so often. The last one I went to involved people acting out discrimination/harassment-it was creepy as hell.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2009 at 3:54 pm

      Except for those two people: the most PC and the most fundamentalist.

  4. magus71 said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:48 am

    “both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media.”

    Are you serious? Is this how media outlets became billion dollar industries?

    Actually–most people love intellectuals. Smart is sexy.

    • kernunos said, on December 1, 2009 at 11:51 am

      No, conviction and confidence are sexy. Intellectualism makes one look like a dog chasing its own tail.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 1, 2009 at 2:09 pm

        Intellectuals are parasites who exude culture. — Kotarbinski

        Celebrities are parasites who exude no culture — Sir Harry Kroto

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm

      The point I made was that they regard the media as a threat and a purveyor of falsehoods/corruption.

  5. kernunos said, on December 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Mr. Rosewater reminds me of a ‘pinky ring’ union thug. Relating him to Sarah Palin is quite a stretch. In fact as I read the Newsweek article I tried to imagine how you could make the connection. Sorry, but I am just not that imaginative.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:01 pm

      I did not claim they are identical. After all, authoritarian types are not all alike. Some are cheap thugs, some are slightly less cheap thugs (like Mr. Rosewater), while others can be rather charming.

  6. magus71 said, on December 3, 2009 at 2:35 am

    I’ve learned an important thing from my current job: There is no one “mindset” or way that is best in all circumstances.

    The writer of Ecclesiates had it right:

    “There is a time for peace and a time for war…a time to reap and a time to sow.”

    George Washinton made the men of the Continental Army swear an oath that they would follow commmands, regardless of how terrible they seemed. Thank goodness they fought to the bitter end. Thank goodness they seemed possessed of an authoritarian mind.

    There’s a lot of good in the media–I learn much of what I know from book and the internet. That doesn’t mean I won’t call them to task when they abuse their constitutionally protected right to exist, anymore then I’ll let some idiot neo-Nazi get away with stupid words, even though those words are protected.

    Each issue must be considered on its own.

    Sometimes goodwill is good–most times perhaps. Sometimes it can get you killed. Sometimes total war is the only option–other times you end up with millions killed senselessly, yourself in a bunker with a cyanide pill and a pistol in your mouth–like Hitler–all because you misused war.

    Point: The authoritarian mind has a place. Like any other tool, it can be misapplied.

    “And many writers have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation: for a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good.” — Niccolo Machiavelli

    I do love a good political realist. Down with idealism….

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